As President Obama completes his final two years, several threads are coming together. Two of them are efforts to move “terrorists” presently held at the naval prison at Guantanamo Bay (“Gitmo”), and reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in over fifty years. Gitmo is, of course, in Cuba; we lease the property for Guantanamo Naval Base from Cuba for $5000 a year, based on a 1903 treaty. For over 50 years Fidel Castro and his brother Raul have been asking us to leave Guantanamo Bay. But of course we haven’t; the lease said we could stay until both parties agreed for us to leave, and we have not agreed. So we are there still, sending a check for $5000 every year. Cuba has been returning those checks, uncashed.
The word “terrorists” is in quotation marks because many of those held at Gitmo have been adjudged not to have committed any acts of terror and we have agreed to free them, but only if some other government agrees to accept them. The problem is that several detainees don’t have an effective government anymore, due to the ongoing Mideast civil wars.
President Obama wants to close the prison at Gitmo, and to send those convicted of terrorism to prisons in the United States. Many of our American politicians disagree, including most of South Carolina’s congressional delegation. Who would want such a prison in their congressional district? In Cuba, just ten miles outside the Navy Base at Gitmo, is the Cuban city of Guantanamo. Guantanamo is a port city, with a population seven percent larger than that of Augusta, Georgia. To the Cubans living in Guantanamo, the Americans have been running a prison with inmates so dangerous we don’t want them anywhere on our whole continent, so we leave them on their island about the same distance from Guantanamo as Aiken is from Augusta. Cuba likes Middle East “terrorists” no more than we do; they want us to leave, and to take the prison with us.
Notwithstanding Congress, there may now be a solution that would enable the President to close the prison and to help mend relations with Cuba at the same time. What if he were to negotiate a new treaty with Cuba as part of our reestablished exchange of Ambassadors, specifying that we would turn the Navy base back over to Cuba and they in turn would lease it back to us, perhaps for 50 years? This time, though, the lease would restrict base use to naval training (its historic mission) and drug interdiction. Cuba would in all likelihood be as interested as we are in stemming the international drug cartels based in South America and Mexico. It would be very hard if not impossible for Congress to prevent the President from renegotiating basing rights with Cuba, just as it was impossible for Congress to prevent Secretary Kerry’s State Department from negotiating the nuclear weapons ban treaty with Iran.
What’s in it for us? As a former Navy officer who has been to Gitmo, I am sure that the Navy would be more than happy to get out of the Federal Prison business and back to naval training, and occasionally helping the Coast Guard nab smugglers at sea. Before President Obama took office we as a nation earned a sordid reputation for detaining and using “enhanced interrogation techniques” on those captured in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to find that many of them were guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have imprisoned people whom we agree are innocent for well over a decade. That fact itself continues to act as a recruiting slogan for potential terrorists. As the President has stated consistently from his very first day in office, closing Gitmo would be a step in resolving that reputation, and would make that recruiting more difficult – a very good thing, indeed. If the President’s wish were granted, we would move those prisoners who actually are terrorists to federal prisons a lot further than 10 miles from a city, much farther than Gitmo is from the city of Guantanamo, Cuba.
Why should we close Gitmo? Because it’s the right thing to do. And with Cuba’s concurrence, there is now a way.